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"Lessons from Below: Otabenga Jones & Associates"

Otabenga Jones & Associates teach us a few things at the Menil

It feels like a classroom when you walk into "Lessons from Below," Otabenga Jones & Associates' installation at the Menil Collection. Chairs surround rows of rectangular tables. De rigueur fake plants flank a lectern at the front of the room. A quote from W.E.B. DuBois, "THE NEGRO IS PRIMARILY AN ARTIST," is written in chalk on a blackboard behind the lectern. Otabenga Jones & Associates, the Houston-based artist collective of Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert Pruitt, has set the stage for learning.

The room is filled with an eclectic assortment of books, images, objects, artworks and artifacts, both ancient and recent, all relating to black history and culture. The elements of the exhibition were culled from the storehouses of the Menil Collection, with some choice specimens thrown in from the Otabenga Jones & Associates archives. Otabenga Jones & Associates are the latest in a recent series of artists turned loose in the Menil's treasure trove of objects. The practice was initiated in 1969 when the de Menils asked Andy Warhol to curate "Raid the Icebox I" at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, culling objects from that institution's collection.

A 1909 poster depicts the talented, persecuted Jack Johnson.
A 1909 poster depicts the talented, persecuted Jack Johnson.

The Menil has amazing things, many collected as a part of the ongoing project started by John and Dominique de Menil, "The Image of the Black in Western Art." Among the objects on the wall opposite the lectern are images of two phenomenally talented and persecuted figures in African-American history. A 1909 poster depicts then-world champion boxer and Galveston native Jack Johnson. Johnson wears tights and holds up his gloves in a fighting stance, with stars and stripes wrapped around his waist. An image to his left shows a crude log cabin labeled "Birthplace of Johnson." An image to the boxer's right shows Johnson in a car coat and cap behind the wheel of an automobile. The text reads "Johnson in his car." Johnson was a brilliant fighter and the first African-American sports celebrity. In an era when lynching was rampant, Johnson was world-famous, made a lot of money, dared to taunt his white opponents and dared to marry white women. He was imprisoned on trumped-up charges under the Mann Act because he had sent his white girlfriend a train ticket to travel across state lines.

The room also contains a bronze head of Paul Robeson by Sir Jacob Epstein. Robeson, whose father was an escaped slave, was valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University, as well as an unprecedented 12-letter athlete. He received a law degree from Columbia, but stopped practicing when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He became a singer and an actor; his title role in Shakespeare's Othello is legendary. He traveled widely, spoke 15 languages and was an outspoken activist for peace, civil rights and social justice. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted him and systematically destroyed his career. His passport was revoked in 1950 for eight years. He ended his days in ill health and obscurity, living in his sister's house. Otabenga Jones & Associates present his portrait on a pedestal set slightly away from the wall. On the floor behind the pedestal, they placed a plastic (?) handgun, concealed and ready. Robeson isn't taking any more shit.

Five pieces of yellowed paper stand out in the eclectic grouping of images on the main wall of the gallery. One is a handwritten 1844 bill of sale for two human beings and a horse. Another is an engraving from 22 years later, a Harper's Weekly illustration of the "'Zion School' for Colored Children, Charleston, South Carolina." It shows a room filled with black children listening to a teacher. The third is a 1921 stock certificate for a Miss Eva Duncan's $5 share in Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line. The fourth is a tattered 1977 poster, courtesy of the Ivan and Ebony Adams collection, that shows a young man in an Afro and reads, "You can kill a revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution." It commemorates the 1970 death of Carl Hampton, leader of the People's Party II, gunned down on the street by Houston police snipers shooting from the top of St. John's Baptist Church on Dowling Street. The last is a brittle manila envelope covered with a drawing by the Magnificent Pretty Boy, a.k.a. Henry Ray Clark. Clark began making his vivid and obsessive geometric drawings while in prison, drawing on anything available. His work is in galleries all over the country. An intruder shot and killed him in his Houston home last year. Juxtapositions like these — of horror, hope, talent and tragedy — occur throughout the ­exhibition.

Otabenga Jones & Associates have also thrown big handfuls of pop cultural objects into the mix. A Michael Jackson action figure with pale skin and a bobbed nose stands next to a little carved wood Dogon figure hiding its face in its hands. In another wall case, a Yoruba anklet is grouped with a 19th-century English cameo of a black woman as well as a plastic ring with a portrait of Martin Luther King. But it's not all nonviolence. On the same shelf is a brick with a "cozy" crocheted in the colors of the pan-African flag, dubbed "freedom ornament with cozy" and dated 1967. Next to the brick is a 1969 sculpture of a Molotov cocktail by Ronald Hartgrove. It's a Coke bottle painted black with a white rag wick coming out of the bottle's mouth. A plastic figure of Lando Calrissian wielding a space gun hides behind it. As far as I can remember, Calrissian is about the only black character in the Star Wars series, unless you want to count George Lucas's regrettable character of Jar Jar Binks, whom Joe Morgenstern, writing in The Wall Street Journal, described as a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen."

Otabenga Jones & Associates present other figures from their archives. There's "The Falcon" circa 1979, its tattered cape evidence of a lot of play, probably by a kid who was thrilled there was a superhero that finally looked like him. Then there's the new-in-the-box Green Lantern, with an Afro and glowing eyes, a Muhammad Ali and a WWF figure of the roid-y looking "Junkyard Dog." It's not exactly a big selection — you realize how few black action figures there are/were for kids.

A collection of 1970s greeting cards effectively conveys the era's zeitgeist. A black card has white letters on the front that read "Black is beautiful...," and on the inside is a reflective square of silver and the words "don't you agree?" Another card in vivid '70s hues shows a drawing of a bearded man in a white turtleneck and fuchsia dashiki against an orange background. He sports a large Afro, rendered in black flocking on the card. The text reads, "Grow an Afro, man...and no one will dare call you boy." People might think you're one of those badass Black ­Panthers.

But the learning isn't only object-based. The exhibition also included a series of Saturday lectures that ended with a big name. In conjunction with the show, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), famed writer, poet and activist, gave a talk in the installation as well as a reading on the lawn of the Menil. For those who missed him in person, a DVD of his classroom lecture plays in the installation on a monitor next to the lectern where he spoke. You can also see footage of Baraka as a young firebrand in his 1970 speech at Texas Southern University on monitors Otabenga Jones and Associates inserted into the Menil's surrealist and 20th-century galleries. It's pretty amusing to see Baraka lecturing all that dead white male art.

"Lessons from Below" mixes reverence and irreverence, sadness and joy, humor and gravity with a goodly amount of righteous anger. One of the stated goals of Otabenga Jones & Associates is "to teach the truth to young Black youth." But they're also managing to teach people who aren't young and aren't black.

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